Nomadland

Nomadland

I really enjoyed this, Frances McDormand's Active Listening Across America tour, though I'm not sure Zhao's approach is 100% successful. The effect of a semi-fictional docudrama like the Rider fundamentally changes when there's a multiple Oscar winning actor as the lead. McDormand doesn't blend in the way Brady Jandreau does. McDormand's craft is acting, so there's less amateurish awkwardness, to be sure. She can hold the camera, say a lot without words. Jandreau's craft is horsemanship, and his communion with those animals is essential to the impact of that film. There's no value judgement here, just an acknowledgment that they change the final product. What you gain in the ability to deliver a sonnet you lose in immersion. In Nomadland, we're curiously on the outside. Not bad. Perhaps less effective, but your mileage may vary.

I wanted to go into the movie fresh, so while I had absorbed some of the criticisms of this article before I saw the movie, I didn't read it until now. If the central thesis is that the film betrays the workers' reality, I don't agree! When Fern says Amazon is great money, I'm not inclined to take that statement at face value. Fern, deadset against accepting help, responds to earnest concern with the proud indignation of a politely buffering phrase, one communicating little more than the desire to be left alone. The gig labor in the film is depicted as precarious, painfully seasonal, hard to find, and not enjoyable at best. It looks hard. It looks repetitive. At one point, she's dealing with literal shit. Fern says she likes to work, the kind of thing you say at the unemployment office to convey the type of person you are. But it's also an expression of self-reliance, part of Fern's ongoing remaking into a nomad transcendentalist. Her pursuit of the sublime in nature, and the solitude that pursuit requires, is in direct conflict with the social connection she resents craving. One season she makes meaningful relationships with fellow workers at Amazon. Those relationships recur in the film, but meaningfully, they don't at Amazon the next year. Why not? This is the kind of understatement in film that can more clearly be spelled out in a book. But in the film, it is still there.

Without reading too much into unspoken intention, I sympathize with the article's author. It's hard when a book you like is adapted into a film that loses those pieces of it you feel are most essential. Perhaps the movie would have been more faithful to the spirit of the book without Hollywood's favorite ornery pioneer woman and without access to Amazon, as a talking heads documentary that airs over 3 consecutive nights on PBS. Perhaps the only way to remain faithful to the book is to remain a book. But I think you get an audience for Nomadland the narrative feature that you don't get on Frontline. If someone watching this movie feels anything less than implicated when they see their toothpaste coming down the conveyor belt, do we expect them to be the kind of person to seek out the documentary adaptation of Nomadland? I'm not going to do a box office prognostication, particularly in a year of film distribution characterized by unprovable counterfactuals, but it seems to me that breakout documentaries are infrequently complex meditations on anything. They're scandals or IMAX spectacle or hagiographic portraiture, complexity sanded down to make an emotional point. Your RBG, your Mr. Rogers fit the cookie cutter mold of Hamilton style history, poured into a pre-existing narrative rather than organically exploring their own thorny contradictions.

And perhaps by making an approachable movie, you sell more of the book. The wisdom the nomads have isn't because they've escaped the system. It's because they, as people on the margins, see it for what it is: one that thrives on unprotected, exploited employees, people with few options. Working to live is coercion, and that's never more clear than on the fringe. But that doesn't mean their lives are without beauty! As Zhao takes pains to remind us, the sun still sets in Nomadland, here and gone, not so different from anywhere else

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